Christine Harland is director of Camden Writers. www.camdenwriters.com
Born Rich, Produced and directed by Jamie Johnson for HBO
Champagne and pretty girls; can life get better than this? Yes. "At midnight," as the heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune tells us as he dons his top hat, "I will inherit more money than anyone will ever earn or spend in a lifetime."
As part of this rite of passage, Jamie persuaded ten young people to face the camera and talk about what life is like for the fabulously rich. The project was not without its perils: many of the subjects were ambivalent, some were angry (one angry enough to sue), some were embarrassed and some did fine. Even Jamie's father, caught in an uncomfortable moment discussing the unmentionable (money), wondered aloud whether this film was good idea.
Big money is about the only thing that the ten interviewees have in common. Josiah Hornblower, the Vanderbilt/Whitney heir, remembers his uncle taking him to Grand Central Station as a young boy and, saying to him, "This is yours". Josiah, serious and reflective, admits that it doesn't bring him particular pleasure to accumulate more worldly possessions.
"A lot of kids who grow up with an affluent lifestyle," Josiah believes, "find that that lifestyle can hold them back from discovering their passions and what really makes them feel good about life."
Stephanie Ercklentz, a finance heiress, caught a lot of flak for her comments about cute Gucci bags and steep credit card bills; her decision to leave a job at Merrill Lynch in order to have a night life; and the absolute necessity for a prenuptial agreement when she finds the right guy. Jamie Johnson likens some of Stephanie's comments on camera to watching a train wreck.
The golfer Raymond Floyd's daughter, Christina, introduces us to Southampton, New York and suffers from a wide-eyed commentary on the posh tennis club there. It's a little breathy and she lacks gravitas. Once in Southampton, we are introduced to the trendy nightclub Conscience Point, where each table is committed to at least two bottles of wine (minimum $250 each), and champagne can, and often does, run to $900 a bottle, so evening tabs run well into the thousands.
But then there's Si Newhouse, the unassuming heir to a publishing fortune that reaches into the billions, whose thoughtful and honest commentary is very moving. He lives in the college dorm because that is where he "feels safe". He is determined to earn a PhD; part of the motive being the sweet revenge inherent in accomplishment.
"My whole family is so disconnected," he tells us, "and my greatest fear is that I will end up like that."
Juliet Hartford, whose father Huntington Hartford managed to lose a fortune, is an artist. Gradually, her father slipped out of her life and she is left now to dream about what she would do if she had the hundreds of millions he frittered away. There is a sadness in her, as there is in Georgina Bloomberg, whose father is the Mayor of New York. Georgina is an accomplished equestrienne, frustrated by the fact that when she, as an amateur competitor, makes a good showing, people are apt to say that it was because she had the benefit of a good horse.
The two Europeans, Cody Franchetti (who participated in the making of the film) and the representative of European royalty, Carlo Von Zeischel, are frankly not very appealing. Cody spends an inordinate amount of time having perfect suits made; maintains that it is foolish to feel guilty about having money and that fortunes are made to be spent; and derides the Americans' obsession with education. Many Harvard graduates, he claims, don't know a giraffe from a zebra. He might be right if we are to judge from the comments of Luke Weil, whose father built a fortune in the gaming industry. Luke seems happy to confess that in his first semester at Brown University (another Ivy League school), he attended less than eight classes (and that included exams). The university, he knows, will do anything to keep him enrolled with an eye to future donations.
That leaves Ivanka Trump, daughter of The Donald, and probably the most balanced, interesting and appealing of them all. She is well-educated, articulate and, looking out her window on the 68th floor overlooking Central Park, already knows that she wants, one day: to see "her" tower as a real estate developer occupying a bit of that free air space.
One of the film's main themes is articulated by Luke Weil when he repeats his father's dictum: "You can do whatever you want, as long as you do something". The path to finding your bliss is both helped and hindered by great wealth.
As Jamie Johnson says at the end of the film: "Now it's my job to build a meaningful life apart from all this privilege I've inherited. Part of coming of age is finding something that's your own."
We are also reminded that in many ways, great wealth is a matter of degree, not substance. The luxuries that some enjoy on a modest level can still seem lavish to those much less privileged. The estate battles, bitter divorces, alienation between parents and children and the rivalries that tear apart families can occur without the presence of great fortunes and they are just as sad. And, like the megarich, we are all afraid of losing whatever it is we have.
We may think that money solves all, but I remain convinced, after watching Jamie Johnson's movie, that there comes a time when, like Queen Guenevere struggling in Camelot, the super rich wonder what "the simple folk do".